The first paragraph of Dan Balz’s column contains some melodrama about the depth of the Republicans’ demoralization, I think, but this passage illustrates the problem that I’ve been talking about with the GOP’s diminished ability to persuade:
But [Arlen Specter’s] defection is a reminder that the Republican Party continues to contract, especially outside the South, and that it appears increasingly less welcome to politicians and voters who do not consider themselves solidly conservative. Northeast Republicans have gone from an endangered species to a nearly extinct species. Republicans lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the last two elections. That’s no way to build a national party.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party’s problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. That’s the lowest since the fall of 1983, when just 19 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama’s opening months on the Republican Party. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. It’s just not as cool to be a Republican as it once was.
The Republicans have many demographic challenges as they plot their comeback. Obama has attracted strong support from young voters and Latinos — two keys to the future for both parties and once part of the GOP’s calculation for sustaining themselves in power. Suburban voters have moved toward the Democrats. Specter can see that problem acutely in the suburbs around his home in Philadelphia home. Obama is also holding a solid advantage among independents, the proxy measure for the center or swing portion of the electorate.
Reihan Salam, co-author of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save America,” said this week that the danger for Republicans is to believe they now represent a vast, silent majority that is waiting to reassert itself. A louder voice from a smaller cadre of supporters is not the answer, he warned. That will just prevent Republicans from reassessing their old agenda, developing new ideas and once again learning to reach out broadly.
For the record, I like what I know about GOP modernizers like Salam and Ross Douthat. Douthat is solidly pro-life. I don’t think that the GOP should compromise its values, I think that it needs to rethink what conservatism means for the 21st century. Don’t try to replicate 1980. Try to meet the challenges of the present with policies based on conservative values.
The reason that I emphasize conservative values is that I think that there’s a need to distinguish between the propaganda that legitimates policies and the values that should animate policies. Please understand that I don’t like liberal propaganda either. But since I’m focusing on conservatism here, it seems to me that the lines coming from the lowbrow conservative media right now is defined by propaganda: There is no downside to capitalism and consumerism. People against torturing detainees care more about terrorists than they do about America. Everyone around the world would welcome an American “liberation.” People who are concerned about the environment and global warming are nuts.
But policy driven by values can accept more complexity. Someone with conservative values can say that we now know more about the environment than we did in 1980, so in retrospect, maybe Reagan shouldn’t have taken down the solar panels that Carter put on the White House. We need to put forth a plan that deals with pollution and carbon dioxide emissions that doesn’t strangle business and doesn’t increase the power of the state, because conservative values call for a free market and an unintrusive government.
What I’m trying to say is that today’s GOP base seems intent on imitating the policies of the past. I think that the key to a GOP revival is applying the values that make conservatives distinctive. Well, that or major Democratic screw-ups.